Research and development in the field of biomaterials continues to expand in Switzerland with the opening of a new centre in Basel.
Specialists say this domain is very dynamic, concentrating Swiss know-how in areas such as precision mechanics and building materials, and with higher-than-average investments for this sector.
Basel's Biomaterials Science Center (BSC), part of the city's university hospital, was officially inaugurated on Saturday. With generous financial backing from dental implant millionaire Thomas Straumann, it hopes to bridge the gap between clinical specialists and engineers.
"We want to bring our physical and engineering knowledge to help medical doctors solve their problems," said the BSC's director, Bert Müller. "Very often they have an idea of what that problem might be, but they don't know how to formulate it properly and come up with the right solution."
According to Müller, a biomaterial is material intended to interface with biological systems to evaluate, treat, augment or replace any tissue, organ or function of the body.
In Basel, research will focus on powerful x-ray imaging to uncover how cells and biomaterial implants bind together artificial muscles, tissue-material interactions and advanced surgical devices.
The artificial muscles team is considering, for example, new technology for the treatment of incontinence.
"There is an implant available for severe cases, but is does not adapt to the body's movements," Müller told swissinfo. "We want to develop a new implant that mimics the muscle better and prevents leaks."
The new centre is considered important by specialists, who say that it is another element in a growing network involving many of Switzerland's universities and the national centre of competence set up last year.
Research and development of biomaterials is particularly dynamic in Switzerland, according to specialists, reflecting a European trend.
"It is driven by people working in material science, but also by others in the life sciences and clinical research," said Margarethe Hofmann, president of the Swiss Association for Materials Science and Technology.
Business-wise, the perspectives are also certainly interesting.
"The universities are developing many new things," Hofmann told swissinfo. "There is a basic knowledge at our institutions that is appreciated by companies who want to collaborate."
But for the time being business opportunities and spin-offs are not on the cards and the BSC plans to concentrate its energy on research.
"It's not our primary aim," said Müller. "It is a strategic goal, but not within the next five years."
swissinfo, Scott Capper
According to the European Commission, the worldwide market in biomaterials is worth €25 billion (SFr40.3 billion) per year, and growing at an estimated 12 per cent annually.
In the United States alone, the market is worth €10 billion, with a growth rate of 20 per cent.
The European market, the second biggest, is worth €7 billion.
Competition in the sector is fierce, with the US leading the pack, but Europe's strength lies in its research and development sector.
An Ernst & Young survey of Swiss medical technology companies in 2005 showed that five per cent were active in the field of biomaterials.
The Biomaterials Science Center was set up with financial backing from Thomas Straumann, whose family created one of the world's leading dental implant firms.
The budget of the BSC remains under wraps, although Straumann's contribution is believed to be worth several million Swiss francs.
Other funding comes from Basel University.
A dozen people already work for the centre, which is still hiring personnel.